Wetlands International

The art of augering in tropical peat

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Courtesy of Wetlands International

In order to better understand the Badas peat dome in Brunei, we needed to clear a path through the peat forest, stick monitoring pipes into the ground at several intervals and take measurements. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Well, I’ve never been so wrong in my entire life.

Peat needs to stay waterlogged to conserve it, so it’s essential to understand the hydrology of areas you want to maintain or restore. The first step is to install dipwells to monitor the water table levels and the subsidence rate of the peat soil. This is where I came in. Not being a hydrologist myself, I was not aware of what it took to install a dipwell. But thanks to the partnership between Wetlands International Malaysia and Brunei Shell Petroleum, I had the opportunity to experience the process (literally) from head to toe.

Day one – First experience and 50 metres of progress

Ronald and Dedi (peat experts from Deltares) and I were at the field site by 7 a.m. I was already tired just from looking at the field of ferns (more than two metres tall). We needed to clear a path to get to the forest and our 1.5 kilometre transect (excuse me? Are you sure you didn’t mean 150 metres or 15 metres?).

Things went quite well at first. The weather was pleasant and I felt pretty cool hacking my way through the ferns with a machete (kind of like Jungle Jane). Some twenty minutes later, I wasn’t so sure. Tiredness set in and the sun started to shine a little too brightly. The worst part was after all that hacking, we had only cleared 200 metres. Great, I thought, only 1,300 more to go.

Then, I felt it. A sharp pinch at the back of my neck, then another and another. We suddenly realised we had hacked into the path of a fire ant nest! Once they sink their tiny incisors into you, the ants never (I mean NEVER) let go. When I finally got home, they were still clinging onto my garments even though they were dead!   Working under the scorching sun.

We succeeded in installing our first dipwell 50 metres from the road by augering (using a special tool to remove soil in a straight line down through the ground). And while it was pretty awesome to dig through the top layers of soil, it can get pretty dirty and tiring as you go deeper – where we encountered more wood and tree trunks. On many occasions, it took more than ten attempts (ten holes!) just to get to the mineral soil below the peat.

However, the challenge was just beginning as the next day we would be in the forest.

Day 2: 250 metres

Installing a dipwell in the forest is a totally different experience. Out in the open field, the biggest hazard is above – scorching hot sun – and the ants. In the forest, the hazards are beneath your feet and every step is a potential booby trap. Holes are hidden beneath leaves, roots silently wait to trip you, and fallen trees block your path.

First one done!

To make things even more challenging, imagine carrying 40-metre pipes or a 10 kilogram auger as you maneuver. The physical workout when trekking through a peatswamp forest is intense, not to mention the number of bruises I collected from falling over, or into holes. Some holes were so deep that I risked getting stuck waist-deep.

As we travelled further into the forest, it became more difficult to install the pipes as the amount of wood buried beneath the soil increased – at one point it took us 15 attempts for one pipe! We even had to abandon a pipe that got stuck in the ground. 

Seven days to install six dipwells

Augering and installing dipwells in peat is very labour intensive. It took us a total of seven days to install six dipwells over 1.5 kilometres. Along the way, we endured many falls, bruises, mosquito bites and bee stings. But there was also a lot of laughter, teamwork and support.

And the results? These dipwells will monitor the water level and subsidence rate of the Badas peat dome over the course of the next year. And we already discovered that the peat layer is sometimes up to 10 metres thick - that’s exceptional in comparison to the rapid decline of so many peat areas!

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